Do you wear your stress on your sleeve, as a badge of your professional honor?

By Warren Holleman

Hard work is a virtue. Caring deeply about the quality of our work is a virtue. If you’re in the health professions, the helping professions, the teaching professions, or any other service profession, your “work” is people. Your job is to help people. Caring deeply about the quality of your work means you care deeply about people. That’s a good thing.

But somewhere along the way we wandered off course. We developed the mistaken impression that it’s a virtue to wear that hard work, and the stress that goes with it, as badges of our professional honor. That in order to consider ourselves important, we need to wear it on our sleeves.

Here are a few examples:

Scenario 1: You pass a colleague in the hallway. He’s walking like somebody who’s headed to the bathroom and worried he won’t make it. But you know he’s really just going to the break room for a cup of coffee. You smile and ask how he’s doing. He barely slows down: “Busy day! We’ll talk later . . .” And he zips on by, looking very stressed but also very important. You’re supposed to think, “Wow, he’s somebody important.” But today all you can think is, “What an asshole.”

Scenario 2: You arrive a few minutes early for a meeting. You’re having a pleasant conversation with your colleagues, catching up on work, family, lives. Everyone is feeling relaxed. Then there’s a commotion at the door, somebody rushes in, plops down noisily in her chair, and goes into a manic recital of all the urgent tasks on her “To Do” list. You’re supposed to admire her for being so essential and show sympathy for her stress, but really you just want to tell her to get over herself and chill.

Scenario 3: You’re a nurse in a large hospital. You’ve been caring for Dr. A’s patient and you’re not clear about a couple of things you need to do. You page Dr. A, and instead of taking the time to answer your questions in a clear and professional manner, she is “short” with you and leaves you feeling more confused than ever, not to mention disrespected, humiliated, marginalized, and angry. A couple hours later you see Dr. A, and she starts to apologize but then goes into a speech about how busy she is and how she has to be efficient with her time. You feign empathy, but, in truth, you are pissed because it’s obvious she doesn’t give a damn about your time or your efficiency. Not to mention your self-esteem, your feelings, or your job satisfaction.

Have you ever noticed how often we tell each other how busy we are? Usually we say it with our words, but sometimes we say it just by the way we rush from one thing to another. Or the way we check our cell phones for email every 5 minutes. With that look of consternation (or is it constipation?) on our faces.

It looks and sounds like we’re busy with very important things to do. And we are. But why the need to advertise? If we took an honest look inside, we’d see what’s really going on. Anxiety. Insecurity. Fear. Throw in a pinch of anger and frustration, and you’ve got a recipe for disaster. You’ve heard about “Breaking Bad”? I call this “Working Bad.”

(Full disclosure: I know this first-hand, because the person I’m describing is me, at least the way I was a few years ago.)

So, you’re wearing this badge that says: “Hey, look at me! I’m so busy! I’m so important!” Have you ever considered the possibility that this is a cry for help? Or a florid symptom of an insidious, underlying disease? It signals to all the world you’re working worried. Working frustrated. Working angry. In other words, you’re Working Bad.

Don’t get me wrong. We all have a valid need to be needed. We all need to feel as though our work is making a positive difference. That our jobs have meaning and our lives matter. We all also need to pay attention, to be conscientious, to care about the quality of our work, and in that sense to “worry” to an appropriate extent. And, when we do slip over the edge into anxiety, fear, and insecurity, or into frustration, irritability, and anger, we have a legitimate need to process these feelings and to sublimate them into something constructive.

But there are better ways to do this than to talk about how busy we are, to walk like we’re always running late to something, or to stress over every little thing. And there are better ways to tell our co-workers we’re feeling dis-stressed than to walk right over them, to walk right past them, or to treat them like they are merely items on our “to do” list.

Here’s a tip: Take a few minutes each week to reflect with your co-workers and friends about why you do the work you do, and whether your work is making the world a better place. Be sure you (a) talk and (b) listen. If you find yourself only talking or only listening, something’s going on that you need to pay attention to.

Here’s another: Get together with 2 or 3 of your most trusted co-workers and video-tape each other “acting” the way you do when you are most stressed and most likely to wear that stress on your sleeve. (E.g. the way you walk down the hall, they way you enter a meeting, the way you check your cell phone for messages.) Have some fun making fun of yourselves. By deliberately “performing” your problem behavior, you’ll prove to yourself and your work-mates that it is what it is: just an act. And therefore that you can also choose to act differently!

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#angry#frustrated#scared#stress#Working Bad


  1. Barry Smith - September 2, 2015 @ 3:18 pm

    Great post. Ever read Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle? A secret society has a password so they can recognize each other. It’s “Busy, busy, busy.”

  2. admin - September 2, 2015 @ 3:50 pm

    Thanks! I never read Cat’s Cradle, but now I will. I guess we’ve all been been part of that secret society for years and didn’t know it!

  3. admin - January 10, 2019 @ 3:32 pm

    Thanks! As you could probably surmise, I can relate as well… I’m describing myself in many of these scenarios. You are right, all that bragging no longer means anything. It’s essentially bragging about being mentally deranged, albeit in a socially acceptable way.

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